Thursday, July 28, 2011

Culture Share: Latvia - Living at the Crossroads

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Jelena M. discusses the mixed peoples of Riga, Latvia.


I was born in Riga, Latvia in a Russian-speaking family; however we are of a mixed European origin. This made me something of a cultural chimera. I’ve been introduced to several traditions, yet I do not hold any religious beliefs nor fully belong with any particular cultural tradition of my blood relatives (or anything else, in fact). Sometimes this makes me an outcast - I live in constant conflict with my “inner cultural self”, who is “blank” and the “outside world”, trying to force things I cannot relate to on me.

Nevertheless, I hold a professional interest in cultures. I’m a writer and (hopefully) have the ability to dissect and process them in order to make my own for the sake of world building. I might say I’m like the ruins of long time past, which have seen many peoples and epochs. And when all is long gone, they are the only witnesses remained, standing in silence, observing.

I wonder if it is a coincidence that I’m living here. Geographically this small piece of land had been a crossroads for a very long time going as far as prior to the recorded history.

Looking at the concrete block apartment houses in my neighborhood it is hard to imagine this place that was still covered with ice some fifteen to ten thousand years ago, with a Post-Glacial period only starting roughly around 6800 BC. That’s why the land in the whole country is relatively flat, with some hills and sandstone cliffs.

#1 Zvartes rock, the view from the Witches’ rock

Since the very end of the late Paleolithic many different peoples walked this territory until the proto-Balts settled here around 2000 BC. It is possible that the three groups - proto-Scandinavians, proto-Balts and Finno-Ugric tribes had contact with one another. And probably since the Stone Age the route which involved the Dnieper and the Daugava played an important role in establishing a communications network between East and West through the Baltic. Unfortunately it is hard to say how these tribes lived, whom they traded with and whom they warred with. There is little info about the customs and cultures of the area prior to the end of the Viking age. Perhaps the best sources of knowledge, besides the archaeological finds and a few historical records done by other nations, are the languages and geographical names. They can tell stories spanning back several hundreds, if not thousands of years.
#2 Turaida (“Thor’s garden” in Livonian language) in the Gauja National Park

Of course, Vikings were also interested in controlling the river mouths and usable ports, but local tribes made life difficult for them and conquests were not easy or sustained. They did however leave their influence which is very much part of today’s Latvian culture, as Viking presence in the region forced change and sometimes unification of tribes.

Now, the Vikings journeyed around the world mostly as their geography allowed them. Sweden was the primary source of the Viking activity from present day St. Petersburg to the Arab world and Byzantium (present day Istanbul). And again, this was done by the extensive river systems of the Baltic region and Russia, so the Swedish Vikings would travel back and forth.

The local tribes of Latvians, Lithuanians, Livonians and Estonians managed to maintain their independence until the eventual conquest by the German Teutonic Knights, the continuous Swedish presence and Christianization in the 13th century. The Livonian Confederation soon emerged, creating more distinct boundaries and cultural divisions.

Several diverse tribes of people lived in this region. The Estonians were in the north, and in the middle and southern sections were the Livs, Lettgallians, Selonians, Semigallians and the Couronians. These tribes existed as separate entities and all lacked a real hierarchical structure, which made them more susceptible to conquest. Of these peoples, the Estonians and the Livs spoke Finno-Ugric languages while the tribes in the south spoke Indo-European languages. The diversity of language increased the difficulty for these peoples to form alliances. These southern languages would combine over the centuries (with the exception of Livonian) to make up what is now the Latvian language.

The Livonian Confederation was a loosely organized alliance between the Roman Catholic Church, crusading German knights, German merchants, vassals, cities and existing indigenous peoples in this area. The strategic location of the Baltic region has made it a prime target for other nations’ expansionist ambitions. With shores on the Baltic sea and important rivers such as the Daugava in Latvia, commerce was one of the prime attributes this region had to offer.
#3 Koknese castle (Kokenhuzen), ca. 1209

The Hanseatic League (Hansa), formed around the middle of the 12th century by German and Scandinavian seafaring merchants, followed the Livonian conquest into the eastern Baltic. For this reason, the first and most important of the eastern Baltic trading cities, Riga, was established in 1201 at the mouth of the Daugava.

The territories that comprised the Livonian Confederation had always held an attraction to foreign powers. The sea ports and the commerce they brought, and the stable agrarian economy with a strong work force were factors that appealed to Livonia’s neighbors. By the sixteenth century the surrounding countries were solidifying their power structure and looking for ways to expand their territories. And since instabilities weakened the Confederation from within, it became a prime target. And after the collapse of the Livonian Confederation the region was divided up among the neighbors.

Latvia is fairly small and throughout the centuries has been repeatedly attacked and invaded by many nations: Swedes, Danes, Lithuanians, Poles, Germans and Russians. Throughout all the centuries, however, no such thing as a Latvian state existed so the borders and definitions of who exactly fell within that group are largely subjective. The state borders as they are now formed only in the beginning of the 20th century. Yet more wars devastated the land and its people.

But people who live at the crossroads don’t assimilate into cultures; they incorporate cultures layer by layer. This is very well seen in the Latvian mythology and folklore. The top has some Christian influences; the core is that of a very ancient pagan descent. For example, the public holiday Jāņi. The Roman Catholic Church celebrates 24th of July as the birthday of St. John the Baptist. But there is little to no connection between Jāņi and this Christian figure. Jāņi is an ancient festival originally celebrated in honour a Latvian pagan deity Jānis, referred to as a "Son of God" in some ancient Latvian folksongs. It is held in the night from 23 June to 24 June to celebrate the summer solstice and takes its roots in the ancient earth fertility cult, the sun cult and the phallic cult.

This layering also creates tension. In the modern society it is showing itself through the struggles of ethnic majority and minorities. Cultures do not clash as openly as in some other cases (e.g. like during the crusades), yet where they live, people start to long for cultural uniformity in one form or another. Some ethnic Latvians openly dislike Russians; some ethnic Russians openly dislike Latvians; both were born here, in Latvia; both are citizens of this country (we also have non-citizens, the so called “aliens”: they were born here and lived all their lives, yet no compromise has been found). Some people don't understand one simple thing -- we are not like the previous generation, and the generations before that -- we don't belong where they belonged. And we are not responsible for the historical events that happened before we were born; we are something new. The product of this country.

Another thing that's happening here, kids use 'foreign' cursing or junk words without understanding what they truly mean. It is funny and sad at the same time to witness how languages deform. And that is what the Latvians were so afraid of. The language will change. The culture will change. Again.

However, it has been said by many, including historians and cultural anthropologists, that by observing the past, we can ‘find’ ourselves in the present; and therefore foretell the future. By this process we hope to learn from mistakes and lead richer lives.

People usually ask me why I’m not living some place else, some place where my ancestors were. I think the answer is pretty obvious.

Jelena M. lives in Riga, Latvia.


  1. After reading this article Latvia become one of my wishlist to travel :) wanna see those lovely photos real and the writer too who brought out the real inner view of Latvia. Keep it up dear and hoping for more "mirror on the wall " of Latvia :))

  2. Fascinating! My grandfather was half Polish/half Lithuanian.

  3. Anonymous, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    Jaleh, that's interesting! My mother is half Polish, in fact. But her other half is Scottish, so I don't have the same connection. :)